Capitalism underlying the transformation of cities

The look and appearance of cities are changed by both intentional and unexpected actions.

For example, in a large-scale redevelopment project in central Tokyo, skyscrapers and high-rise apartment buildings are constructed with the aim of increasing the floor-area ratios, and they completely change the cityscape. It is an intentional transformation by large capital investments.

On the other hand, in some cases, young people’s small shops in the back streets where rents are low attract people, making the streets fashionable and revitalizing the community. Young people may not have intended it from the beginning, but it eventually transforms the cityscape.

In the first place, when high-rise buildings and other buildings are built with large capital investments, the neighborhood is completely changed to expand the area of land for new buildings. That means the traces of the residents who lived there are erased.

There are some cases where residents move to a newly built high-rise apartment building after the redevelopment is completed, but they often move to other places because they do not get used to the environment or the rent is high.

In the end, they are excluded, and new residents who match the high-rise apartment building that was developed based on a new identity form a new community space.

These transformations of communities are called gentrification. It is a phenomenon that the hierarchy level of residents is increased along with redevelopment.

Miyashita Park in Shibuya, which was renovated in 2020, is a typical example. The area was redeveloped by a major developer and opened as a complex with commercial facilities and a hotel, and the park was relocated and renovated on its roof.

The old Miyashita Park was also located on the second floor above a ground parking lot, but it was still a typical park that can be found in any city, and it was a public space that anyone could visit.

However, the new Miyashita Park has been transformed into an elegant and active leisure spot with stylish benches on the grass and state-of-the-art sports facilities.

We can say that it reflects the atmosphere of the times, but on the other hand, it has become a space where people who can use such facilities well or people who can take part in such concepts gather.

I do not know whether the redeveloper had any intention of doing so, but in reality, it resulted in promoting some kind of exclusion.

I think that the logic of capitalism is at the root of it. It is the idea that economic efficiency is prioritized to recover the invested capital from the space in some way.

In that sense, it is desired to segment efficient customers into the commercial space from the tenants to the rooftop park. Of course, since Japan is a capitalist society, we can say this is one form of capitalism.

The invigoration accompanied by consumption can also become the identity of the space, which in turn leads to attracting new users.

On the other hand, activities of young people to rejuvenate back streets seem different from the way that generates exclusion, such as large capital investments, because their activities seem to deepen cooperation and communication with local shops and residents.

Ura-Harajuku – born from the transition of the community

A typical example of revitalization of communities by young people with small amounts of capital is Ura-Harajuku.

In the 1980s, there were not many roadside shops in Omotesando, and the current Ura-Harajuku used to be an area consisting of a quiet residential area and a local shopping district.

Since the 1990s, along with the transformation of Omotesando into a shopping street, young people who cannot afford to own shops on the main street have opened apparel and specialty boutiques on the back streets where rents are low, which has led to the current Ura-Harajuku.

In the process, I think there was interaction with local shops and residents. However, even if the bustle of their shops has revitalized the neighborhood, I honestly doubt how much it has led to the return to the local community.

Originally, the area now called Omotesando was a farming village called Onden in the Edo period. With the Onden River running through the village and with many water mills, the area is also known for Katsushika Hokusai’s depiction of the scenery in Fugaku sanjurokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji).

In 1920, Meiji Jingu Shrine was built on the west side, and the area around Onden Village became Omotesando. The Onden River was later covered by a culvert, but we can still see a monument with Onden Bridge written on it.

After the war, the west and south sides of Meiji Jingu Shrine were taken by the U.S. Army and became Washington Heights, a vast housing complex for military personnel and their families. Later, in 1964, it was also used as the Olympic Village. Since then, cultural figures with advanced thinking and creators from various fields have established residence in this area.

At the site of what is now “Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku,” there was an apartment building equipped with a central air conditioner and hot-water supply equipment for American military personnel in the 1950s.

It became Harajuku Central Apartment, a housing and shops complex, and many young creators moved in there. Among them, there were people who started fashion brands that still exist today.

They are called “mansion-makers” (a maker with an office using a small apartment room). That is, those with little money did their activities by relying on their talent and ability to advance their careers while staying in apartment rooms.

These movements are the foundation of transforming Omotesando into a fashion and shopping street, and activities like those by mansion-makers in the past are now carried out in back streets, which has eventually led to the current Ura-Harajuku.

When looking at the history and transition of communities in this way, we can see there is a process in which communities are revitalized in the structure of capitalism by new culture and identity which are either formed from the change of the city by national and large capital investments or from the progress by young people from the bottom upward.

In other words, the process in which new cities and communities are formed is non-uniform and entangled with various factors, and it is not a matter of right or wrong. However, it is also true that some people are excluded or left behind in the process.

By viewing the landscape as an object, we can see the meaning of the landscape

Since I am a geographer, I expect that the original context, or rather the locality, of the community will last. However, I also think that it is difficult in the structure of capitalism.

For example, in a small city of a prefecture, away from national key areas, shops opened by young people at the edge or the corner of a declining shopping district sometimes create a flow and interaction of people, which leads to revitalization by local residents. However, when it happens, there are many cases where outside capital investors set their eyes upon the area and enter.

On the other hand, activities at “Yanesen” have been attracting attention for some time. This is a movement to look at each of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi, an area that retains the atmosphere of downtown Tokyo, in a new light.

It may mean that more and more people want to protect the local landscape against the “domination of landscape” by capitalism, in which large capital investments transform noncommercial spaces of a city into consumption spaces and completely change the cityscape.

It is resistance to exclusion and elimination, and also might lead to diversity and sustainability.

Have you ever viewed your surrounding landscape as an object? You will find that even the casual daily scenery is surprisingly good and unique when you view it as an object.

Then, you will have fun and be interested in looking at the surrounding landscape. In fact, when the landscape is changed, we completely forget and cannot remember what it was like before. For example, I believe there are few people who can remember the old Miyashita Park.

It also happens around us. I think it is the fear of the landscape, and, on the contrary, the fun.

Based on an understanding of the landscape that is deepened by viewing it as an object, it might be good to think about the meaning of its transition.

* The information contained herein is current as of January 2022.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.